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This is part one of the series Hard Knocks Uni: The Crisis in Higher Ed. Read the full series here.

Alan Tudge was optimistic. Addressing the Australian International Education Conference this month, the minister for education and youth believed things were looking better for the beleaguered university sector. Vaccination rates were finally surging. International students would soon start to return. 

Many people who weren’t on that zoom call would disagree with Tudge’s rosy picture. Since the pandemic hit, when Scott Morrison told international students to go home and Australia pulled up the drawbridge to the outside world, it has been a bleak time for many in higher education. Some 40,000 jobs are gone, and thousands of lives upended both here and abroad. An entire industry is undergoing an existential crisis. 

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But Tudge is right to be cheerful. The pandemic might have been a devastating time for academics, casual staff and students, but it’s allowed the Coalition to achieve exactly what it wanted — refashioning the tertiary sector to cut back Commonwealth funding and leave the humanities to whither away.

JobKeeper: the first nail

March 2020 was a profoundly unsettling time, when the pandemic suddenly became real. But universities had long existed in a constant state of precarity. Higher education sits in a liminal space where it is both a multibillion-dollar sector — the source of our fourth largest export market — but with its health hog-tied to the whims of the government.

And governments haven’t been kind. According to the National Tertiary Education Union, government funding over the last decade is about $10 billion less than what was projected in 2010. Both sides of politics bear some responsibility here – the Gillard government cut $2.3 billion from universities in 2013. At the time, Josh Frydenberg called it “unconscionable”.

But for most of that decade, it’s been the Coalition in charge. While university revenue increased over the period, that growth came largely from the fees of domestic and international students, who universities turned to in order to make up for lost government funding. Their numbers grew nearly 60% over the last decade.

So when the border slammed shut, higher education, more exposed to the world than perhaps any sector in Australia, was screwed. Initial modelling suggested a $19 billion revenue shortfall over the next three years. The government’s response was a shrug. Three times the Morrison government changed the rules to exclude public universities from JobKeeper. 

The government’s rationale for the exclusion was that universities, backed by the taxpayer, wouldn’t experience a sharp enough revenue fall. Complex funding arrangements made universities an imperfect fit for JobKeeper. But private institutions, including the Australian branch of New York University, weren’t denied the wage subsidy. And Treasury’s recent report, showing the government paid $40 billion to companies that didn’t meet the turnover requirements, makes universities’ exclusion seem all the more harsh. All up, the denial of JobKeeper, and the lack of a substantial rescue package left a bitter taste.

“Universities are not getting a special deal,” Morrison said in July last year.

While JobKeeper might not have been a great fit for universities, the lack of a sufficient funding package for the sector was telling. For Australia Institute economist Eliza Littleton, the decision seemed political.

“Of course we couldn’t predict COVID was going to happen and the border closures were a necessary policy that saved lives. A lot of industries were implicated as a result,” she said.

“But a lot of those industries received quite a bit of support.”

The promise of job-ready graduates

A common attack levelled against the Coalition by political opponents and higher-education wonks is that its approach to universities is ideological. 

“The cultural hostility to university education from people who’ve all had a university education is just so stark,” Labor’s shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek said. 

Both the past and present shows how ideological that approach has been. Once upon a time there was relative bipartisanship in higher education funding. Then came the Howard government, which shifted the balance of total-education spending from universities to private schools. Its abolition of compulsory student unionism drained millions from student services and organisations while helping accelerate the demise of campus life.

Under the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, higher education funding as a proportion of total education spend fell again. The Abbott government was most nakedly ideological, attempting to deregulate course fees (which would have seen costs balloon) and introduce a 20% funding cut. Twice it failed to pass the Senate. Malcolm Turnbull’s education minister Simon Birmingham introduced a plan to dramatically cut funding while also passing the Senate (“fundamentally fair”, he called it). It too failed.

Where those governments failed, under the guise of the pandemic the Morrison government succeeded. It’s plan unveiled in August last year to save universities was essentially to double the price of arts degrees. The Job-ready Graduates Package, introduced by former education minister Dan Tehan (BA, Melb.) tethered course prices to graduate employment outcomes, shifting students away from impractical communist rubbish like gender studies (and law) and toward useful things like engineering.

Naturally, what drew attention was the apparent attack on the humanities. But beneath the headline it was clear the package also involved a wholesale reduction in government funding to higher education, with student contributions making up the load. It looked like a curious mix of ideology and ineptitude.

“It’s a policy disaster. It doesn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense then, it doesn’t make sense now,” Greens education spokesperson Mehreen Faruqi said. 

It was never realistically going to shift students’ subject choice, because thanks to the HECS system, they’re generally not all that responsive to changes in degree cost. Demand for the humanities actually went up this year. If it wanted to reduce public outlay on universities, there were far simpler ways to do that.

“The government introduced a package that doesn’t achieve what it wanted, made the system more complicated, and probably didn’t save money,” University of Melbourne higher education expert Gwilym Croucher said. 

And the reform’s great sweetener, the promise to provide funding for an additional 27,000 student places, looks like a furphy according to the University of Melbourne’s Mark Warburton. 

“There’s been lots of ideology in it. My analysis of the package is fundamentally they’d been wanting to shift costs to students, and they’ve been successful in doing that,” Warburton said. 

Because the government froze university funding for two years in 2017, the package’s promise, to fund more uni places, is actually only enough to cover the un-funded students who grew in numbers during the freeze years. To fund additional places, they’d need to provide an additional $1.1 billion.

Still, for all the policy confusion, the Job-ready Graduates Package achieved that long-held goal of the Coalition to further defund the higher education sector which had been kicking around since Howard: to dramatically reduce the Commonwealth’s spending on universities. 

Everything is culture war

Last December, a cabinet reshuffle put Tudge in charge of higher education. The minister wasn’t available for interview for this story. But his recent remarks point to a real optimism about universities that isn’t shared by many in the sector. Tudge points to revenue at major institutions like Monash and Melbourne, which did better than early pessimistic models predicted, as a sign that things really aren’t quite so bad. When asked about ongoing course cuts across universities last week, Tudge denied it.

“No that’s not true.”

As a minister, Tudge is best known for a long series of gaffes. More recently he’s firmed up as one of the most outspoken culture warriors in Morrison’s ministry. His approach to higher education is no different, frequently bashing the universities for not doing enough to protect freedom of speech. 

Earlier this year he introduced laws to protect academic freedom. All up, they were a relatively minor tinkering, and a concession the government made to One Nation to get the Job-ready Graduates Package passed. But the consistent focus on a largely confected free-speech crisis on campuses, pushed hard by both Tehan and Tudge, betrays the ideological prism through which the government views the sector.

Universities are a kind of Rorschach test — everyone sees what they want to see. For Liberal MPs, universities are hotbeds of leftism, of cancel culture gone mad, a perspective drilled into them in the hothouse of student politics. 

“They still see the world as stupol,” Faruqi says.

But the socialists who made fun of them for being Young Liberals are hardly indicative of the broader student population. Still, that suspicion of universities being their ideological enemies explains everything from the Howard government’s introduction of voluntary student unionism, to Morrison’s unprovoked assault on arts degrees, the lack of a sustained funding package, the obsession with fighting culture war strawmen over shoring up the sector’s future. 

In the higher education story, the Liberals are an all-too-easy villain. But they’re not the only ones responsible for the destruction of universities.

Next: Huge salaries, then crying poor. Are universities their own worst enemies?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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